Who is My Neighbor?

Who is My Neighbor?

Last week’s special Senate hearing about the sexual assault allegations against Brett Kavanaugh overflowed with outbursts of emotion that were astonishing to witness. But beyond the fear and anger expressed in the room itself, it was the response from one quarter in particular in the days that followed that surprised me most of all.

In the days leading up to the proceedings, one lawyer close to the White House argued that “If somebody can be brought down by accusations like (the ones facing Brett Kavanaugh, then you, me, every man certainly should be worried. We can all be accused of something.” Numerous people offered arch observations about why the lawyer might feel that way. But then conservative Christian women began saying the same, raising their voices in a chorus of panic.

From one mother writing at The Federalist to innumerable others posting memes on Facebook and Twitter, conservative Christian women took the Internet by storm, protesting that the supposed assault on Brett Kavanaugh was an assault on their husbands and their sons. Women needed to stand together to do something about it.

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At the same time, conservative complementarianism has also taught women that their role is to support the careers and callings of their husbands (and equip their sons to do the same). So its a logical extension of that belief is that if a man’s livelihood is wrongfully at risk, then it is part of a woman’s role to not just stand by her man, but stand in front of him.

There’s a very real way in which I share these women’s’ concern for the vulnerability of their loved ones. I have children too. But my children are girls. So my fears for my daughters’ vulnerability has been shaped very differently than the fears some mothers of sons are now feeling so acutely.

Before I had children, I was certain I would be a better mother to boys than girls. Even though I grew up in an almost exclusively female world, having only one sister and attending an all-girls school, my interests and abilities always seemed more aligned with boys. But God decided differently, giving me 3 daughters in 5 years, and so I quickly embraced being a mother of daughters as God’s specific calling for me.  And a signifiant part of that calling was and continues to be managing their vulnerability.

When my girls were young, my concerns for their safety centered on their physical vulnerability, in a way not totally dissimilar from mothers of young boys. While little boys interests often put them in physical harms way more than little girls, a girl and a boy who fall out of a tree from the same height will suffer the same fate when they hit the ground. Raising my girls to love to climb trees, and play sports and generally test the limits of their physical strength and gravity meant steeling myself to accept a measure of physical risk.  But my concern for the fragility of their bodies went beyond the fear of a few broken bones.

My family history has been scarred by the multi-generational consequences of child abuse in ways I’m not free to talk about in much detail. But suffice it to say that, as dedicated as I was to keep my daughters safe from physical harm, I was was even more committed to doing all I could to protect them from the greater harm to their bodies and their souls from sexual abuse. In those early years, my concern about their vulnerability to predatory men (or women!) was very much the same as would be for mothers of boys.  But as my daughters grew into the teenage years, that equity dissolved.

The irony of a boy growing into adulthood, relative to a girl, is that boys grow into strength, while girls grow into relative weakness. Generally, although always with exceptions, woman’s physical strength is less than that of a man’s. And specifically, when a woman’s body gives itself over to nourishing another life, she experiences a type of whole-body vulnerability a man never will.  These inequities in physical strength and vulnerability have been hallmarks of conservative arguments about the distinctions of gender for generations. They’ve been at the center of conservative complementarian arguments that men are called to protect women in a distinctive way that women are not.

But while this idea that all men are in possession of a distinctive strength that makes them less vulnerable to harm has been universally argued, it is far from universally experienced. There are elements to strength and vulnerability that go beyond mere muscle mass. All men may be created equal, but not all men are treated that way.

This report published last year by the Law Department of the University of Michigan examining data gathered by the National Registry of Exonerations describes the inordinate proportion of African American people who have been wrongfully convicted, then exonerated, of crimes.  Specific to the crime of sexual assault, the report states that while “assaults on white women by African-American men are a small minority of all sexual assaults in the United States, …they constitute half of the sexual assaults with eyewitness misidentifications that led to exoneration.” Wrongfully convicted African American men also receive harsher sentences and spend longer periods of time in jail waiting to be exonerated and freed.

This data, along with the numerous tragic anecdotal situations of black men like Philando Castile, Eric Garner, and Botham Shem Jean, and boys like Tamir Rice and Roy Oliver depicts the tragic reality that, to borrow a famous phrase, all men are equal, but some are more equal than others. And it’s what makes the deployment of stories about fictional black man Tom Robinson of To Kill a Mockingbird, or the very real black boy Emmett Till to bolster white women’s arguments that their husbands and sons are uniquely vulnerable to false accusations by women so disingenuous. What white women fear now, what they are demanding the nation hear and take notice of, is precisely what black women have feared for their husbands and sons for generations. Their fears have all too often been realized, time upon tragically unjust time. And their cries for justice have often gone unheard.

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There’s a sense in which the innate instinct all women have to protect the vulnerable closest to us, to the point of giving up our own lives, is a very good thing. It’s literally how God created us. But when we use our God-given instincts as justification for making the locus of our care only those who are closest to us physically, we neglect the greater spiritual reality of what that created instinct actually expresses – about the character of God, and how he expects us to express that character as his image bearers.

This is why the story of the Good Samaritan matters so much.

Jesus himself was interrogated on more than one occasion by Jewish legal experts on his understanding of the Old Testament law. On one such occasion, when a young lawyer asked about how to inherit eternal life, Jesus replied with the two commandments which are the sum of all the law and the prophets – to love God with all one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. The lawyer responded by asking him to elaborate on the definition of “neighbor”. This wasn’t because he was in a hurry to rush out and take Jesus’ words to heart. Like all lawyers looking for loopholes, he cared about who was outside that definitional line much more than who was inside it.

And Jesus exposed him for it.

Jesus took up the question and said:“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him, beat him up, and fled, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down that road. When he saw him, he passed by on the other side. In the same way, a Levite, when he arrived at the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan on his journey came up to him, and when he saw the man, he had compassion. He went over to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on olive oil and wine. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him. When I come back I’ll reimburse you for whatever extra you spend.’ — Luke 10:30-35 (CSB)

The elegance of the setup of the story is that the responses of both the priest and the Levite to the sight of an anonymous injured man on a road were entirely reasonable when viewed through the interpretive lens of the Old Testament law. The common assumption of the Old Testament definition of neighbor was that it referred to fellow Jews. Jesus declined to note the man’s religious identity, leaving an entirely reasonable loophole for two faithful Jews employ to justify their choice to look and walk away. More importantly, Jews from the tribe of Levi were set apart for service in the temple and needed to take particular care to protect themselves from ceremonial uncleanliness. Priests, in particular, were specifically warned to stay ceremonially clean by giving dead men a wide berth, which is what the man lying in the road almost certainly looked like. One can only imagine how little legal mental maneuvering it took both men to justify their walking on by.

But the Samaritan, himself an outcast in the eyes of the Jews, saw the man differently. He refused to use a mutual affinity like shared ethnicity as a minimum requirement for justifying his compassion. The priest and the Levite looked at the bloodied and beaten stranger of unknown origin and saw uncleanness. They responded with self-preserving obedience to the letter of the Levitical law.  The Samaritan saw a human being in need and responded with self-sacrificing love.

Arguments that appeal to our love for those who are “ours”- our sons, our daughters, our husbands -are arguments that appeal to the self-justifying statements of the lawyer that Jesus rebuked. They are appeals to the to the self-protecting love of the priests and Levites, not the neighborly love of the Samaritan.

Neighbor love centers our compassion not only on the people who are “ours”, but on all those who are God’s. Neighbor love is not only about people who are God’s through faith in Christ, but about all those who are His because they are made in His image. Neighbor love is love that is directed at those who are not like me – who share neither my identity nor the experiences that identity generates – and seeks their welfare in exactly the same ways I do for those who are.

For white Christian women like me, neighbor love means a concern for protecting all men from the injustice of false accusations, not just men who look like my white husband.  It means teaching my girls to seek the safety and welfare not only of their own bodies, but the bodies of those who are the least like theirs – to treat boys as brothers with both their actions and their words, and to call others to do the same.   And for those who are not like me, neighbor love looks exactly the same – seeking the safety and welfare not only of themselves, but for women like me and my girls, even, as the Samaritan did, at personal cost.

In Jesus’ death on the cross, he proved that his admonition to the lawyer wasn’t just a clever riposte deployed to win a legal argument. He himself was our neighbor as he showed us mercy, taking our sin on himself and being broken for us on the cross. The one who was so unlike us in his holy perfection, nevertheless identified with us in our sin and our suffering at the cost of his own life, to restore us and make us whole.

Jesus was and is a neighbor to us. All those who identify with him must go and do the same.

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Our Evangelical Authority Crisis

Our Evangelical Authority Crisis
(0/9/18 Editing note: Several friends in academia alerted me to an error I made with the word I chose to describe TMU/S ‘ accreditation status. I used the word “suspended”,  believing it meant “at risk of being revoked if identified issues remain unaddressed”, as that is where things are. The term I should have used is “on probation”.  Both TMU and TMS remain accredited while they are addressing the issues. I’ve updated the post and regret the error. It was not from any intent to mislead or misrepresent the facts in any way.)

The flames over Dr. John MacArthur’s announcing his intention to write about why growing Christian concerns about justice issues are a threat to the gospel were still smoldering when news broke that both The Master’s College and The Master’s Seminary (TMU/S) had their accreditations placed on probation last month for administrative infractions (Dr. MacArthur serves as the president of both). Doctor MacArthur famously eschews most things Internet-related personally. But there is an entire cottage industry of websites and online communities dedicated to lionizing him or pillorying him over the things he teaches. Historically, it’s been his teachings – about the Charismatic movement, the Emerging church, complementarianism and most recently social justice – that have been the center of the controversy. Last week’s news about TMU/S was the first controversy that has even come close to involving him personally.

For Dr. MacArthur’s numerous detractors, this moment is the one they’ve been building their Internet platforms for. For his equally numerous and even more passionately committed followers, it’s just another day of Satan doing what Satan does.

But for me, as these overlapping controversies unfold simultaneously, it’s personal. And it’s painful.

Some you know some of the story of my journey to, through and then from TMU and Grace Community Church (GCC). Some of you know a lot more, because we’ve walked portions of it together – whether in person or online.

The Cliff notes version of my story is that I attended TMU (then TMC) from 1990 to 1994, and was a committed member of GCC for all of that time and 5 years after it (until I married and moved to Northern California, where I live today). When I first came to TMU from Australia, I passed for a Christian as only a Reformed Baptist pastor’s daughter could. In reality, I was a committed, albeit closeted, unbeliever, who planned to bide my time at TMU until I could transfer to UCLA to become a psychology major. I didn’t know that my plan to move halfway around the planet to get away from God was really God’s plan for me to run straight into Him. Through a series of providences, I came to be persuaded that God was real. It logically followed that everything the Bible said about Him, myself, and what I must do to be right with Him was true as well. So one night shortly before Easter in 1990, I confessed my sin of unbelief, asked Jesus to save me and committed to following Him for the rest of my life. But it would be over 12 years before I began to understand just what I had actually done (or more importantly, what God had done in me).

The grace of growing up in a home where the Bible was read regularly and deeply revered meant I was blessed to be more familiar with the basics of Biblical doctrine than the average new believer. But I carried some pretty deep wounds from how it had been applied in certain contexts. Now that I was actually a Christian, I was determined to do the Christian life right. And, as I repeatedly heard in TMU chapel and at church, there was no better place on earth to learn how. All that was required was to follow the Biblical blueprint TMU would teach me.

One principle that was essential to this blueprint was the concept of authority and submission. It was “built into every dimension of personality relationships”, and  was characterized by two distinct features:

Authority and submission were absolutes. Christ’s perfect, unqualified submission to His Father as His Son was to be the model for our unqualified submission to human authority. No matter how unrighteous and antithetical to God’s design the earthly authority was, unless directly commanded to disobey God, our call was to be like Jesus and submit to it.

submission

https://www.gty.org/library/sermons-library/1845/

Authority and submission were ontological dimensions of gender. Authority, or leadership, was inherent to being male, while submission was inherent to being female. The justification here was the order of creation in Genesis 2, and the parallels with God the Father and Jesus Christ as his Son in 1 Corinthians 11. Men were inherently called to be leaders, and women were called to submit to them.

(The MacArthur New Testament Commentary on 1 Corinthians, pgs. 253-254)

The picture Dr.MacArthur painted of authority and submission was a study in contrasts: of safety, stability and happiness when it was followed, and sinful, anarchic institutional chaos when it was rejected, like the difference between the nostalgic vision of Thomas Kinkade (whose paintings were notably popular with GCC families) and the dissipated, apocalyptic one of Hieronymous Bosch. Authority and submission was the glue God created to hold the institutions He designed for the flourishing of the world – the church, the family and the government – intact. Without them, chaos would reign.

I was drawn to this blueprint for happiness, especially its promise of blessing and affirmation from God. I had often struggled as a child to believe that God loved me or was pleased with me. I was ready to sign on for any system that a path to God’s approval. So the early years of my Christian life were built to its exacting specifications – through college, in post-graduate life as a reluctant career woman, and (finally) marriage and motherhood to 3 daughters in 5 years. And it was the circumstantial and spiritual burdens of early mothering that finally sent the whole edifice crumbling to dust. But then God stepped in, clearing away the rubble and helped me rebuild my theology on a more solid foundation. To borrow Brennan Manning’s quote of Lloyd Ogilvie, my life changed from living to earn God’s love, to living because, in Christ, I already possessed it.

Over the next several years, I went on a kind of Bible study pilgrimage, to understand what it meant to be a restored bearer of God’s image through Christ, not just as a person, but as a woman. That pilgrimage inevitably lead back to this issue of authority and submission and what the whole Bible really taught about it.  The answers I found in the Scriptures were far different than what I’d been lead to believe.

Without question, the theme of authority and submission does appear constantly throughout Scripture. But the depictions of human authority and human submission are hardly ones of absolutes.

The Bible regularly positively depicts men and women who resist human authority, in word and deed:

The Bible positively depicts those with authority submitting to people under them, in word and deed:

The Bible positively depicts women speaking with authority. It affirms the men and women who listen to them, while the ones who do not become object lessons:

The Bible even negatively depicts women who submit to their husband’s authority absolutely:

All of these stories find their culmination in Christ, who, while he was still a child under Jewish law, reminded his mother that his ultimate authority was his Heavenly Father, not his earthly parents (Luke 2:41-50). Throughout His ministry, he regularly exposed and refuted the extra-biblical authority of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 15:1-14). And on one memorable occasion, he took a whip to Temple employees and property (John 2:13-17) to make his point.

To be clear, the Bible clearly teaches that resistance to unrighteous authority is no more of an absolute in the Christian life than submission is. Peter uses Sarah as an example of someone who submits to her husband even when he is not exercising his authority rightly (1 Peter 3:5-6). And again, the ultimate example is Jesus, who for the joy set before Him didn’t despise the shame of being put to death on trumped up charges of blasphemy because a weak-willed Pilate capitulated to an angry mob (Hebrews 12:2).

The thread that ties the theme of authority and submission together in the Bible is not absolutism. It is the supremacy of God over all things, including human authority. Where human authority is shaped and exercised like God’s, we rightly obey it. When it is not, and as God gives us the means and the opportunity, we work to resist it in God’s name so that its shape matches His. When the opportunity doesn’t come, or those in authority resist us in return, we submit, not just to unrighteous authority, but also to the One who judges rightly, for God to do what He wills in His time.

Over and over again, the Bible shows that submission to God’s authority can include humble, faith-filled resistance to human authority, when it is not being exercised like God. It is not a resistance that is rebelling against God, but serves as an appeal to those in authority of the danger of God’s judgment for their own rebellion against Him in not exercising their authority righteously.

The more settled my convictions became, the more I wanted to understand the theological foundations of Dr. MacArthur’s views. That study sent me down two connected, but distinct paths.

The Eternal Subordination of the Son

One of Doctor MacArthur’s notable qualities is the constancy of his convictions. Said differently, he rarely changes his position on anything. On the occasion of the one notable time he did change his mind, he wrote about it here.

Dr. MacArthur once believed that Jesus was not eternally God’s Son, but that he became God’s Son through the incarnation. In this article published in JBMW in 2001, he explains how he came to change his mind, and to believe that Jesus’s “sonship” is eternal. Elsewhere, he describes the nature of Jesus’ sonship as eternally obedient, or submissive. Consequently, through Jesus’ relationship with His father as a Son, He is eternally submissive or subordinate to His Father.

ChildWhowasGod

https://www.gty.org/library/sermons-library/42-34/the-amazing-child-who-was-god-part-3

This argument will be familiar to those who followed the Internet debate several years ago over the doctrine described variously as ESS (Eternal Subordination of the Son), EFS (Eternal Functional Subordination), or ERAS (Eternal Relationship of Authority and Submission).  The controversy ignited partly because a group of Reformed women writers, including myself, had traced varying threads of problematic teaching in women’s’ Bible study materials back to this same place.  It’s a position held by other conservative theologians, such as Wayne Grudem. It’s also a position many other conservative theologians argue is unorthodox, outside the bounds of the Nicene Creed.

Authority and Submission as Gendered

Dr. MacArthur’s remarks at the GTY blog were far from the first time he has used Roman 13 as the textual lens through which to view contemporary issues related to civil authority.

Romans 13 was the leading passage for a sermon he preached at a special Sunday morning service to honor the LAPD in the wake of the first wave of Black Lives Matter activism in 2015.

It was a featured passage (alongside 1 Peter 3) in a sermon series he preached after the LA riots in 1992.

It was the leading passage in a sermon he preached in the aftermath of the LAPD’s aggressive arrests of pro-life protestors in 1985.

Modern English translations take two approaches to interpreting the article that modifies “authority” in Romans 13: 4. The NKJV uses “he”, as does the ESV. But the NASB uses “it”, and so does the CSB. It’s a distinction with a difference worth considering.

Rom13-4
Over the years, Dr. MacArthur has read this verse from both translations. But when he expounds on it, he invariably equates authority with the people – the men – possessing it.

LAPD1

https://www.gty.org/library/sermons-library/80-162/obeying-civil-authorities

LAPD2

https://www.gty.org/library/sermons-library/80-419/how-god-restrains-evil-in-the-world

The belief that authority is ontologically attached to personhood, particularly manhood, will shape the way you view any number of issues our country is focused on today – domestic abuse, clerical abuse, police brutality, and civil disobedience.

It will shape the way you interpret America’s troubling legacy of slavery and segregation, its lingering effects, and the Protestant church’s passive complicity and active participation in it.

It will justify telling a sanctuary full of police officers on a Sunday morning that they’re ministers of God, without telling them that they’re also sinners who rebel against God’s authority, especially when they abuse their authority or knowingly cover up its abuse by others. It will have them leave the service ignorant of their accountability and culpability, instead of convicted and driven to repentance and restoration through Christ, the one to whom all authority has been given by His Father.

Now, Dr. MacArthur’s arguments about absolute authority and submission are being put to the ultimate test, as the two institutions he leads are themselves accused of not submitting to civil authorities. The charges vary in type and in degree, but their unifying theme is that the leadership of TMU and TMS has repeatedly chosen to do or not do things required by federal law for them to be fully accredited. Ironically, many of the requirements in question are designed to properly contain authority and ensure that it is properly distributed and not misused. These are the issues they must address and make right to have their accreditation restored.

It remains to be seen Dr. MacArthur and the administration of TMU/S will submit to these mandates – whether they will recognize the damage this belief in absolute authority and submission has done to their institutions, let alone the hundreds and even thousands of men and women who have served and been taught in them.

The damage is not just from the doctrine itself. It’s the way Dr. MacArthur is drawing a line from this doctrine to differing Christian perspectives about how to faithfully pursue justice like Christ, and calling those perspectives a danger to the gospel. It implies that pastors who are attempting to faithfully shepherd their congregations to better align their understanding of justice with Christ are somehow going “off message”. It implies that church members who humbly raise these issues with their elders and pastors or other church members are somehow sowing division, instead of pursuing greater faithfulness to Christ.

I have watched over the last several years as the different branches of my spiritual family – my GCC family, my TMU family, my local church family, my Christian Internet family – are not just growing apart from each other, but growing antagonistic and suspicious of one another’s fidelity to the gospel.  There is a dividing wall of hostility being built against those who are working to tear it down in the name of the One who put such hostility to death on the cross (Ephesians 2).

What I am thankful for, in the midst of the shame of our factiousness playing out in front of a watching world, it has no power to defeat the actual gospel. As my pastor, Josh Camacho, wrote to me when I wrote to him about all this last week:

“There is no legitimate threat to the gospel, there is no worthy opponent to the gospel; the gospel has outlasted empires, emperors, and will outlast immortal creatures that defy it. The gospel is the power of God unto salvation to those who believe and it is marching forth to the ends of the earth by the Sovereign will of Christ who is determined to build His church by the regenerating and renewing power of the Holy Spirit. The gospel will be fine. We might get ourselves into trouble…but the God who offered His only begotten Son for sinners will not be thrown aside by errant theology.”

And to him and to all of us, I say “Yes and amen.”

Learning From My Black Family

Learning From My Black Family

I was raised in a Christian context that, in the name of vigilance against the dangers of revisionist history, actively taught it. I grew up believing that the Puritans were the pinnacle of American Christian orthodoxy and that Martin Luther King Jr. was little more than an adulterous heretic. I was taught that majority black churches were corrupted by the prosperity gospel, irreverent worship, and too many women in leadership.

Which is why, this week, as we’ve been commemorating the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, I’m celebrating the irony of God’s mercy in using two African American hip-hop artists I’ve never met to expose my inherited ignorance, and lead me into what will be a lifelong process of repentance and relearning.

I don’t remember when or how I first heard of Shai Linne, only how it felt the first time I heard his music.  Like a lot of young, restless, and Reformed Bible college grad types, I had long ago set aside the childish things of CCM radio and fed my soul a steady diet of the Gettys and Sovereign Grace music. But what Shai Linne had created seemed to defy categorization.

Before the album “The Atonement,” all I knew of rap and hip-hop was the glorification of violence and misogyny. Shai Linne’s music was different. His lyrics were theologically solid and rich as the Westminster Catechism. But it was the lyrical approach – the discipline of the syntax, the creativity, the turns of phrases so tight that the only other artists I could compare it to were dead white men like Shakespeare and Donne – that gripped my soul. It was poetic, prophetic gospel preaching, creatively wrapped in the rhythms of rap. I remember the day I listened to “Mission Accomplished” as I folded laundry, and felt all the questions I’d ever had about limited / particular atonement finally fall into place. One three-and-a-half minute song settled what four years of Bible college had not. I was hooked.

Not long after, I learned about another artist named Propaganda. I read that he wrote in the spirit of Shai Linne, so I downloaded his album “Excellent” the day it released. As the kids say, I wasn’t ready.

“Excellent” was broader in scope than “The Atonement,” but every bit as gripping. This time, I was chopping vegetables for dinner as I listened. Suddenly, the lyrics of one track gutted my Reformed Baptist American sensibilities with such surgical precision that I had to set down my vegetable knife and click “rewind,”  just to make sure I understood what I was hearing.

“How come the things the Holy Spirit showed them
In the Valley of Vision
Didn’t compel them to knock on they neighbor’s door
And say “you can’t own people!”
Your precious Puritans were not perfect
You romanticize them as if they were inerrant
As if the skeletons in they closet was pardoned due to they hard work and tobacco growth
As if abolitionists were not racists and just pro-union
As if God only spoke to white boys with epic beards
You know Jesus didn’t really look like them paintings
That was just Michaelangelo’s boyfriend
Your precious Puritans
Oh they got it but they don’t get it
There’s not one generation of believers
That has figured out the marriage between proper doctrine and action
Don’t pedestal these people.
Your precious Puritans’ partners purchased people.

Why would you quote them?”

(Click here to listen to the whole song-it’s well worth your time)


The forcefulness and eloquence with which Propaganda called out the heroes of my faith sent me on a hunt for answers the minute the dinner dishes were dry. I combed the stacks of the church history section of the combined library of my Multnomah Bible College-graduate husband and my Master’s University-graduate self. My search yielded few and incomplete answers.  So I took to the Internet. There I found various Reformed theologians and bloggers, equally gripped by “Precious Puritans,” discussing the historical veracity of Propaganda’s claims, and arguing charitably over the different ways they could be viewed.

None of Propaganda’s detractors denied the substance of his argument – that many of the Puritans and later Reformed theologians I had been taught to revere had been slave owners, and/or slavery and segregation apologists. The allegations were, in truth, facts – facts I had never been taught.

But as shocking as these facts were to learn, what gutted me was that the main line of defense was not denial, but compartmentalization. Sure, the argument went, the Puritans had owned slaves and propped up the institution of chattel slavery, but that shouldn’t overshadow all the good things they did.

Propaganda had marched uninvited into the institutional halls of Reformed evangelicalism and ripped the closet door off its hinges, causing the rotting corpse that had been hidden inside it for centuries to come tumbling out onto the floor. And the strongest response his detractors could muster, as they shoved the corpse back into the closet and forced the door closed, was to keep waving their hands at all the pretty art on the walls.

The abruptness with which I learned these inconvenient facts about the Puritans didn’t shake my faith in their, and my, God. But it forever shattered my belief that the Puritans had a lock on what practical faithfulness to Him looks like. Not only that, it moved me to consider whether, and how, the Reformed Baptist tradition which held them in such unqualified high esteem might suffer from the same moral blindness. Most importantly, and most painfully, it made it necessary to consider how much of the same unchecked blindness – that sin,  had found its way into my own soul.

It didn’t take long to see it in my first thoughts about artists like Shai Linne and Propaganda.

One of the tenets of Reformed Baptist identity I had been taught to embrace was the importance of exercising discernment about our spiritual influencers – the pastors or theologians we listened to and learned from, the books we read, etc. (This was doubly emphasized to Reformed Baptist women, what with us being the gender of the more easily deceived and all.)

Of paramount importance was the depth and purity of someone’s theological orthodoxy – their Five Solas bona fides. But of nearly equal importance was how that theology was packaged. With what denomination was someone affiliated, and how theologically orthodox was their church? How closely did they follow the regulative principle of worship? What kind of clothes did they wear? What kind of tone did they employ, in their writing, their speaking, even their singing? With which contemporary cultural issues did their theology rightly intersect (e.g. marriage, abortion, taxes), and from which ones was it kept rightly separate (e.g. poverty, race relations, the environment)?

In other words, while the content of someone’s message was paramount, if the packaging wasn’t wrapped in the right way, or didn’t have the right pattern, the contents were necessarily suspect. And if the right packaging only came in certain colors, well, packaging in any colors other than those was necessarily suspect as well. Conversely, if the packaging was the right pattern and color, that automatically signaled that the contents were right – no need to look inside too closely to check.

Thus, what I saw modeled and was taught to believe, was that my default posture towards any white Reformed Christian teachers (and their Puritan forebears) should be unquestioning trust. But my default posture towards even self-professing Reformed Christians of any other ethnicity should be skepticism, until and unless they conformed to all the prescriptive cultural norms and biases of my tradition.

I could be challenged and convicted by white Reformed Christian leaders because they were inside the permissible circle of trust. But because my default posture toward non-white Reformed Christian leaders was skepticism or uncertainty, it was easy to dismiss anything they said that was challenging or convicting as proof that they weren’t sufficiently worthy of trust or attention.

When I first listened to Shai Linne, I did so from a default position of skepticism and mistrust. How could someone who sounded like him, who looked like him, pass the orthodoxy test? But the words he spoke, and the skill with which he wielded them, schooled my ignorance and exposed my prejudice for the sin that it was.

And the sting of this rebuke prepared me for the next one, courtesy of the pen and the voice of Propaganda, an African American brother in Christ who would have been viewed with suspicion at any church I’d ever attended up to that point, just because of how he looked, let alone because of what he had to say.

And from that day to this, I’ve been repentantly listening and learning from him, and many other godly African American family like him.

This week, the fruit of that repentance has looked like listening to the speakers at the MLK50 Conference. As I’ve listened, one part of me has been thinking about the future – about what God has yet to teach me about how He wants me to think, and especially do, differently in my own church context. Another part of me has been thinking about the past – how the old me would have responded to what I was hearing, and how the people I was taught to view with such mistrust and Pharisaical disdain, are the people who I count as valuable teachers, as family, today.

I saw a lot of stiffnecked disdain and self-righteousness circulating on social media yesterday – an experience that produced a simultaneous mix of sorrow and thankfulness in my heart. The old me would probably have been an enthusiastic contributor to it. But because of God’s work in my heart through the faithful witness of two gifted African American brothers, I wasn’t.  And I’m grieved over those who were.

I can, and do, pray for God to do the same kind of work in my white family He did in me, however He chooses to do it – whether through the words of faithful black brothers like Shai Linne and Propaganda, or the less eloquent words of their grateful white sister, Rachael.

The Statement the World Needs Most

The Statement the World Needs Most

“What is a human being, and what does it mean to be one?”

If popular media trends are any indication, people have been asking that question for a very long while, but we’re not satisfied with the answers.  For the last fifty years, Hollywood has been doing a brisk trade  in TV franchises like Doctor Who and Star Trek, and comic book movie universes featuring the Avengers, the Justice League, and the X-Men, selling stories that stoke our imaginations, and haunt our dreams, as they explore the boundaries of what it means to be human.

The surge in interest in science fiction and superheroes stories has happened concurrently with the rise of the Digital Age. Both “Doctor Who” and “Star Trek” rose to popularity in the 1960s, during the first wave of mainframe computing. “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, the spinoff that launched so many others, soared to popular and critical acclaim in the early 1990s, during the building of what Al Gore famously named the “Information Superhighway”. The DC and Marvel comic movie empires grew in the midst of the first Silicon Valley dot-com boom, bust, and recovery, as companies like Google, Amazon, Apple, and Facebook grew from successful start-ups into the technology monoliths they are today.

This trend can be partially explained by the way technology has infiltrated the way movies and television are made. The more technologically advanced the story telling is, the more convincingly real the stories become.

But that’s not the only reason, nor the most important one.

From the invention of the first super computer to the launch of the latest mobile app, the central goal of the technological revolution has been the transcendence of human limits – ones like time, location, and knowledge.  Thanks to the wonder of FaceTime and WiFi, we can talk to someone on the other side of the planet in seconds instead of days. Laptops, tablets, and video conferencing systems let us work anywhere, anytime. The (potential) answer to any question is as close as the click of a mouse. And if bad weather and crazed children have you cursing the limits of time, space and knowledge, collectively, just ask AlexaShe’ll have 45 minutes of peace and quiet delivered to your door in a matter of hours.

But not all of our limitations are so easily surmounted.

The most enduring limits of our human state involve our bodily capabilities and the raw materials with which we exercise them.  Our physical, mental, and emotional capacities are all subjected to the vagaries of our environment, circumstances, genetics, disease, and disaster. No matter how fully we ever realize our potential, it eventually diminishes and dies, gradually, or in a single, terrible instant.

There isn’t an app for fixing that, at least not yet.

It’s the combined intractability and universality of these limits that produces cheers, and tears of wonder, each time technology helps us get one step closer to conquering one of them. Whether it’s an artificial heart or pancreas or womb, a brain implant that restores hearing or stills seizures, or an exoskeleton that helps a paraplegic walk – nothing is more thrilling than seeing the limits of our bodily brokenness overcome.

This is the place where worldviews collide, and divide.

According to secular humanism (the dominant ideology of technology industry leaders and workers), humans are uniquely evolved organic matter, possessing an intricate blend of features and flaws. The boundaries of our bodies are fluid. We are eminently malleable, and infinitely upgradeable. The meaning of our humanity is as variable a construct as its substance.

The Bible says differently.

The Bible says that humans are wondrously made in the image and likeness of God (Psalm 139:13-16),(Genesis 1:26).  Because of this, all of the boundaries of our humanity have meaning, and none of them are neutral.  Many of those boundaries are “as designed”. They display God’s character (Genesis 1:31). They enable us to serve each other as we fulfill God’s creation mandate (1 Corinthians 12:14-27). They demonstrably display the differences between the Maker and the made (Psalm 121:4).

Many others are the consequence of our fallenness (Romans 3:9-19), or the fallenness of the world in which we live. (Proverbs 13:23)  The common grace of our God-reflecting desire to rescue and heal, and our capacity to create, and the particular grace of the work of the Holy Spirit, help us retrace the boundaries of our humanity more closely over God’s design in some ways.  But we are utterly incapable of doing it completely, nor were we ever made to.

That work can only be done by Jesus.

Jesus was with God at the beginning (John 1:2), forming living being from dust, and life-bearer from living being (Genesis 2:7, 21-22). In his incarnation, the limitless one took on human limits (Philippians 2:6-8), living perfectly within them on our behalf. Then he submitted himself to humanity’s greatest limit in death, shattering its hold on us through his resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:55-56).

Sin is what causes us to see the different boundaries of our humanity – our ethnicity, our socioeconomic status, our gender,  – as tools to divide and oppress.

Jesus is the one who covers that sin, not by erasing our boundaries, but by redeeming them, and uniting all of us, as human beings, in him.

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)

This is the statement the world needs the most. The one it keeps asking for. The one the church still hasn’t written.

For all of its good intentions, the Nashville statement answers questions the world thinks it already has answers for, without sufficiently addressing the ones the world knows that it doesn’t. They are questions the world has been asking for years, ones the church has largely overlooked.

And while the world continues its quest for answers, Silicon Valley has been steadily, effectively reframing the question.

“What is a human being, and what does it mean to be one?”

We’re living in an era of unprecedented human transformation. Does the question really matter that much?

 

Awake, O Sleepers

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I was sitting in an air-conditioned hotel room in Little Rock, Arkansas, as Philando Castile sat bleeding to death in his car. I was getting ready for an important day of meetings, and I’d put myself on strict social-media lockdown to stay focussed. So it wasn’t until the following afternoon, when my meetings were over and I was in the back of an Uber car, driving through the thick Arkansas humidity back to the cool comfort of my hotel, that I finally read the news.

Being away from home meant I was free to read longer, and more in depth than I otherwise would have that night. I had spent part of my travel time out to Little Rock reading about the death of Alton Sterling, which had happened just one day earlier. The customary cycle of commentating and social media back and forthing about Sterling’s death between my longtime white community of friends, and my growing community of African American friends, had barely abated. Now a new cycle was starting before the previous one had even slowed down. It was almost too much for my mind to process, or my soul to bear.

The next day, I had  three hours before I needed to be at Clinton Airport for my flight back to San Jose. I noticed that my route to the airport would take me past a high school that was designated as a National Historic Landmark. My curiosity was piqued – could anything historically significant come out of Arkansas? A couple of clicks laid my ignorance bare. With all the questions swirling in my mind in the aftermath of Philando Castile’s death, it seemed providential that I just happened to be four miles away from one place that might offer some answers. I decided I should visit.

Little Rock Central High School was the school of the “Little Rock Nine” – the three African American boys and six African American girls who were the first black students to attend one of the largest and most highly regarded all-white schools in America, in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Brown vs. the Board of Education in 1954. That ruling declared that “separate but equal” segregated education was a violation of the 14th amendment of the Constitution. But Arkansas civic leaders were determined to ignore the ruling, and maintain the racially segregated status quo.

When the NAACP helped register the nine students before the beginning of the 1957 school year, Arkansas Governor Faubus deployed the Arkansas National Guard to forcibly prevent the students from entering the school on the first day of class. President Eisenhower then sent in the 101st Airborne Division to force the Arkansas National Guard to stand down, and ensure that the nine students would be escorted in safely.

For nine months, the Little Rock Nine attended classes under the presumably protective watch of the 101st Airborne Division. But the reality of what they experienced was almost unimaginable. They suffered relentless psychological torture and physical abuse by students. Teachers and administrators ignored their pleas for help. The soldiers and other law enforcement agencies who were their security detail did little beyond what they had been forcibly ordered by the Federal government to keep them physically protected.

Several of them finished high school elsewhere, but the majority endured, and eventually graduated. Little Rock Central High School was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1982. In 1999, the Little Rock Nine were awarded Congressional Medals of Honor, the highest offer given to civilian American citizens, in recognition of how their courage and  determination, in spite of their youth, catalyzed a nation toward greater awareness and action in the fight for civil rights for African Americans.

I walked into the Visitors’ Center having never heard one word of this chapter in America’s civil rights story.  I had spent my high school years overseas, and my college years at a conservative Christian liberal arts school. Over the past several years, I had grown increasingly uncertain about the scope, and especially the slant, of my understanding of American history, let alone the church’s role in it all. But I didn’t know yet how much I didn’t know.

The LRCHS Visitors’ Center sits diagonally across from the still-operating school. A collection of exhibits are positioned strategically near large windows, so you can see the school and its sidewalks in the near distance, and envision the dramatic events unfolding as you learn about them.

The entire center is riveting, but it was the moments I spent standing in front of this picture of Elizabeth Eckford  that I’ll never forget.

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She is walking away from her new school after being turned away from the entrance by the Arkansas National Guard. The picture stands in the exact middle of the center. On a wall to its left are quotes from judges and politicians, referencing landmark rulings and arguments in the years leading up to that day, some of them referencing God or the Bible.  To its right, only slightly further away,  is another enlarged photograph, this one of Emmett Till’s mother gazing at the mutilated face of her son as he lays in an open coffin. Also close by is an exhibit dedicated to the role of the  new media of television in bringing this event directly into the living rooms of ordinary Americans.

The tapestry of thoughts that ran through my mind as I took in that scene were woven from the innumerable threads of providence that brought me to stand in front of it. My oldest daughter was the same age that Elizabeth Eckford was then. My middle daughter was the same age as Emmett Till was when he was lynched.  The white woman with the face contorted in rage resembled any number of the women at my youngest daughter’s private Christian school (including me).  I gazed at the passive faces of the military officers in the background, and at the adjacent pictures of television newscasters delivering live commentary from nearby sidewalk corners. With the morning media coverage of Diamond Reynold’s horrifying commentary recorded on her iPhone and posted on Facebook so fresh on my mind, it suddenly became crystal clear how the same confluence of factors at work in America in 1957, were working themselves out in identical ways in America in (then) 2016.

Before I headed to the airport, I stopped at the gift shop and bought books for each of my daughters, and one for myself titled “Warriors Don’t Cry”. An autobiography of another of the Little Rock Nine named Melba Beals, it reads like the memoir of a survivor of a POW camp. Tears streamed down my face, unchecked, as I read it from cover to cover on the flight home.

All of the same themes I had observed  in the Visitors’ Center as I stood in front of Elizabeth Eckford’s picture, repeated themselves in Melba Beals’ story:

  • The institutional entrenchment of unjust laws and abusive authority structures, buttressed by Biblical language and ideological blackmail
    In the aftermath of the Civil War, the battle for the segregated South shifted to America’s institutions – law courts, schools, police forces, and churches.
  • The prophetic power of visual media
    Mamie Mobley insistence that her son’s casket be left open so that as many people as possible would be confronted by the horror of his death lead to the picture that was the visual spark that ignited the Civil Rights movement in earnest.
    REAL_CHICAGO_1950_S_3519509
    Two years later, ordinary citizens watched history unfold via the televisions in their living rooms, as the Little Rock Nine made their way home through an epithet- spewing mob via the new media of live television.
  • The unfathomable courage and resolve of black women (many of them Christians)
    From the mothers and grandmothers of the Little Rock Nine and their advocates like NAACP chapter president Daisy Bates, to women like Mamie Till, Rosa Parks, JoAnn Robinson and others, black women both endured and resisted immense political and personal pressure to push forward the work of racial equality and justice for African Americans
  • The passive (and active) complicity of white Christians
    Judges, politicians and pastors deployed Biblical language and theological arguments as offensive weapons against integration. Professing Christians absorbed them, and embraced entrenched racism and segregation as “biblical”. Christian dissenters and desegregation advocates were marginalized, labelled as liberals or heretics, so that many ordinary Christians capitulated to pressure to remain silent in the name of keeping peace.

Those themes have emerged yet again this past week in the aftermath of Officer Jeronimo Yanez’s acquittal in Philando Castile’s death, as new video and still images of the incident and its aftermath, and commentary on it, are rolling through social media.*

Whatever thinking, reading, writing, and social media interacting I’ve done on topic of the gospel and racial reconciliation since then was birthed from what God did in my mind and heart over those two days in Little Rock, Arkansas.

The term some groups use to describe my experience is being “woke”: the scales of ignorance have permanently fallen from my eyes so that I now see what African Americans have been testifying to for so long. It’s not a term I’m comfortable using. Wobbly grammar aside, I don’t know that it’s the most appropriate term culturally for a forty-something white lady from Silicon Valley to adopt for herself.  But beyond that, it’s the way many people treat “wokeness” as a binary state – one in which you live completely, or not at all –  that prevents me from embracing it, at least for myself.

My evolving understanding, and awkward, imperfect attempts to speak and act consistently with the gospel in all this feels more akin to how Neo felt in the famous red pill/blue pill scene in The Matrix. 

I’m barely beyond the disorientation of waking up, covered in the slime of my ignorance, surrounded by a legion of others still unconscious. Gracious new friends are helping me build muscles atrophied from lack of use. My eyes hurt, because I’ve never used them before. And that’s about as far as it feels like I’ve come.  

As I’ve lurched and stumbled through dialog about race and the gospel in the digital world of social media, and the personal world of my local church contexts (both the one I’m in now and well as ones from previous seasons of life), I’ve found myself in the same place as other white Christians in times past.  I’ve experienced the subtle, and unsubtle, criticism and distancing by other white Christians, and heard the suggestions that I’ve “gone liberal” and fallen in with the so-called gospel-diluting “SJW”s. I’ve felt the tiny stings of  social media unfollowing and mutings, when I’ve shared stories in the hopes others might finally be persuaded in the same way that stories persuaded me. Remembering the immeasurably worse my black sisters have endured, and continue to endure, convicts me when I’m tempted to silence, and simply spurs me to ask God to increase my faith and give me courage like theirs.

A different hurt comes from a place my reading hadn’t lead me to expect.  When white Christians like me take a step forward in advocating for racial reconciliation or restitution, whether a small one on social media, or a slightly bigger one involving collective action, our attempts are sometimes met by some black Christians with cynicism, judgement, or a barrage of “so what are you going to do right now”s and “not enough”s. When you’ve discovered that some of the pillars of your understanding of the gospel are rotten, and you’re doing your uneducated best to replace them, the extra burden of law and guilt we’re given to wear weighs us down,  and tempts us to quit. Remembering the far worse burdens my black brothers and sisters have borne for centuries without quitting, and the gospel of grace which gives all of our burdens to Jesus, spurs me to keep going anyway.

The lament over the acquittal of Philando Castile’s killer was the biggest and loudest by Christians I’ve yet observed. It gives me hope that we may be living in what future generations of Christians might look back on as the real Great Awakening of the American church.

But it will require many more Christians to embrace the gospel in asking for God to reveal our blindness, to take the sins He reveals of our collective indifference, willful ignorance, and complicitness to the foot of the cross and leave them there,

and then ask Him to give us the grace to speak, and to act,  precisely because so many generations of our forefathers and mothers would not.

“The LORD loves righteousness and justice;
the earth is full of the steadfast love of the LORD.” (Psalm 33:5)

“The LORD stands at the right hand of the needy one,
to save him from those who condemn his soul to death.” (Psalm 109:31)

 

*I’ve declined to include the video or still images of Philando Castile’s death, to respect both the African American community who are so constantly traumatized by these images, and the LEO community struggling to work under the dark shadow the unrighteous acts by some cast over the honorable and sacrificial service of the rest.